Finding Music in Unusual Places, Sandman Magazine, April 2006
Here’s the story that inspired me to write this article: I was walking home from work when I heard a child cry out in laughter. Her mum said, “Why are you laughing, was it at that beeping car?” The child replied, “Yes, mummy, it was music!” I had to laugh myself because, well, maybe it was.
If someone knows just one piece of 20th century experimental music it’s probably 4” 33’ by John Cage, otherwise known as ‘the silent piece’. In its first performance the pianist David Tudor went to the piano, sat down, opened the piano lid and proceeded to do, well, nothing (apart from open and close the piano lid to signal the piece’s three movements).
There are a number of misconceptions about this piece. Chiefly that it is nothing more than an arty prank, a joke played on the audience. In fact Cage’s intention was to open the ears of the audience to the natural sounds around the auditorium. These accidental sounds, people coughing, birds chirping, distant traffic. There’s the music.
In his later years Cage actually owned no recorded music, preferring to open the window of his apartment when he wanted to listen to “music”. He listened to 4” 33’ every day, apparently.
It’s not a new idea. The American writer Henry David Thoreau remarked in his journal of 1851, “One will lose no music by not attending the oratorios and operas. The really inspiring melodies are cheap and universal & are as audible to the poor man’s son as to the rich man’s.”
Ok, some people are lost already. It’s fair enough I suppose. One persons’s musical experience is another’s traffic noise. For me though, I find the idea of listening to the rain beating a rhythm on my skylight infinitely more preferable than sitting through the latest Coldplay album.
Since opening my ears to the sounds around me as music I’ve had a number of these wonderful “found” musical experiences. I try to record these experiences by writing them down. I don’t think field recording or ‘phonography’ really does found music any justice. Just as no recording of 4” 33’ can really exist (although several do), the sound of distant cars on Rivelin Valley Road backed by the buzzing chord of a sub-station can’t really be accurately documented. (If you want to hear that ‘piece’ go to Bole Hill Park in Crookes.)
It’s easy to mock of course: that brilliant gag in 24 Party People where Martin Hannet is found in the Peak District trying to “record silence”. I might add that, unlike Cage, I have my fair share of albums and enjoy a bit of rock and roll as much as the next person.
So what does Cage and the avant-garde have to do with your music? I’m not expecting every other band to be playing mic’ed up egg slicer overnight. The point is that if you open your mind to what music can be, you might get less bogged down in what it should be. In my opinion far too many bands are following a set of unwritten rules governing what they can and can’t do musically, and they could benefit from adopting just a little from a free thinker like Cage.
Postscript, November 2006
It's seems strange, in the context of the comments on phonography in the seventh paragraph that I'm presenting field recordings on this website. I've thought about this and tried to explain my thoughts on field recordings/phonography in the field recordings sections.
A bit of context too, this was written for a local magazine that mainly features indie type bands - hence the slant and size of the article. A much more comprehensive overview of Cage and his motivations could be found elsewhere.
Postscript, September 2012
It's hard reading back writing with the benefit of hindsight. It's interesting to look back on how my musical ideas were being shaped back then. I still think the observation in the final paragraph is a good one in relation to the type of bands I was seeing week in week out. Thinking about my own career in a rock band I wonder if I should have taken my own advice.